October 1, 2022

Specification of sustainable wood products – Construction products

Building product specifiers such as architects and engineers are urged to consider the environment and sustainability when selecting products. This consideration includes understanding how a product is purchased, manufactured and its impact on the environment and climate change.

But it’s not just professionals who make these decisions. Awareness of choosing sustainable products is increasing among consumers and retailers, and is impacting purchasing behavior. Research indicates that choosing wood products over more carbon-intensive materials like steel and concrete will reduce CO2 emissions and help mitigate climate change. But the minority voice demanding an end to all logging (and especially old-growth forests) is growing louder and confusing.

What does this mean for the future of natural wood building products? The Western Red Cedar Lumber Association has launched an initiative to raise awareness about the facts about the forest industry in North America and the role wood products like WRC play in reducing CO2 emissions. It is intended to reach end users and specifiers, but will also include retailers, distributors and other supply chain actors. The program, which includes a video, an AIA-approved Continuing Education Unit (CEU) course, trade show materials and a dedicated page on realcedar.com, cites facts from credible third-party sources such as the USDA, US Forest Services, Natural Resources Canada, and the Forest Stewardship Council, among others, to address common misconceptions about the forest industry and the environmental and economic importance of wood building products.

“It’s kind of an educational program,” noted WRCLA chief executive Brad Kirkbride, “but with the amount of misinformation circulating right now, it’s pretty important to the health of our industry that we provide the other side of the story.”

The misinformation Kirkbride refers to comes in part from environmental groups and public protests demanding an end to logging and claiming that our forests are disappearing and that the industry is causing irreversible damage to the environment.

“The reality is,” Kirkbride continued, “the forest industry in North America adheres to the strictest regulations and practices available. The rate of deforestation in Canada and the United States has been virtually zero for many decades, and responsible forest management in North America has resulted in more than 50 consecutive years of net forest growth. And this despite a growing population and increased demand for wood products.

The essence of the program is to explain how sustainable softwoods like western red cedar produce essential and sustainable building products. There is of course a huge economic advantage to choosing wood products; wood is the main source of income in many communities. In the United States alone, the forest products sector employs over one million workers and accounts for 6% of manufacturing GDP. But perhaps the most compelling reason to choose wood building products is the role a wood product’s life cycle plays in reversing climate change.

“We’re seeing consumers respond to the message about climate change,” Kirkbride said. “Nobody wants to hear you preach, but when carbon sequestration is understood, it puts the importance of using wood like the WRC in a different perspective.”

As a tree grows, it absorbs and stores carbon. But as it ages, it becomes more susceptible to disturbances such as fires, pest outbreaks and droughts. Although these are natural disturbances in the forest, a rotting or burning tree releases CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. However, if that tree has been felled and used in construction products, for example, that carbon is stored during the life cycle of the product. The CO2 captured during a tree’s lifetime stays locked up in the wood, which means that sustainably harvested wood products continue to be a carbon store long after they leave the forest.

The use of wood construction products has a significant impact on mitigating climate change. By 2030, Canada’s forest sector will remove 30 megatonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year, representing more than 10% of Canada’s climate change mitigation goal. In the United States, “forests and associated harvested wood products annually absorb the equivalent of more than 14% of economy-wide carbon dioxide emissions and store more than three decades of CO2 emitted by fossil fuels,” according to the USDA Forest Inventory and National Analysis Program (FIA).

All this gives good reasons to continue to use wood. While there are those who argue that old growth forests are disappearing, Kirkbride is quick to point to the shift to second growth crops and, in many cases, to third growth crops in the Pacific Northwest, as well as the increase in products like the WRC engineered coating.

“We have been actively marketing second growth gnarly WRC products for years,” said Kirkbride, “and engineered WRC products like the Engineered Clear Solid WRC, the Engineered T&G with a clear veneer overlay and the engineered nodes all use excess fiber. There is no doubt that the industry is changing, but the change is positive.

While new products regularly hit the market, responsibly managed forests play an outsized role in storing carbon, fighting climate change and providing a multitude of sustainable and essential products, which is particularly important because our global wood needs are not decreasing.

– Simon Cameron represents the Western Red Cedar Lumber Association. Founded in 1954, the WRCLA is the voice of the cedar industry and has members in 132 locations across North America (www.realcedar.com).